Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our first video for Week 10. I apologize that I am getting it to you a bit late. Our teaching assistant today is Maggie and our subject is the first wave of the Russian intelligentsia.
Let’s start with a few announcements. Thank you for your good work on the blog these past two weeks. There are a few of you who haven’t yet made any posts. If that applies to you, then you probably got an email from me at the end of last week. If I wrote to you individually, please respond. You don’t need to do you blog posts before you write back to me. My main concern is to find out whether you are okay, or you are having difficulties. So please write back and let me know what your situation is.
Second announcement: If you are in a group that has already posted your Midterm Media Projects, then you got feedback from me over the weekend. Overall, I was blown away by the fun, creative, thoughtful projects you all put together. If you have any questions about my feedback, please let me know.
Now that we’re done with midterms and on track with remote learning, it’s already time to start thinking about your final papers. I sent out that assignment by email on Sunday, and you can find it on the course website under Assignments, too. I scaffolded this assignment into a few different steps, to make it more manageable. Your first deadline is in one week. By Sunday, April 12 at 5pm, you need to come up with a Research Question and a list of sources you plan to use in writing your paper. Remember, you should only use sources from the syllabus. That means you can dig deeper into a question we considered together in class, or you can take sources from different parts of the syllabus and put them together to think of a new question. Either way, you have a week to figure out what you want to do. You should submit your Research Question and List of Sources on Sakai. I realize the 12th is Easter. If that’s a day you will be taking off from work to celebrate the holiday, you should plan to get your work finished the day before. I will meet with each of you individually on the 13th or 14th to talk through your materials. I will create a shared document sign-up sheet, so keep an eye out for my email sharing that with you in the coming days. If you are not able to do a video meeting on Teams, you should still sign up for a meeting, but let me know your situation. We can also do your meeting by phone. If you have any questions about the final paper assignment, please let me know!
Okay, let’s get to talking about the First Wave of the Intelligentsia. As you read, the intelligentsia began to emerge in the 1820s. Last week, in discussing Pushkin, we talked about the first half of the 19th century being the Golden Age of Russian literature. In a way, we might also think of it as the Golden Age of Russian culture and intellectualism, as well. Thanks to the policies of Catherine II and Alexander I, in this era Russia had a fairly large community of educated people who were interested in discussing their beliefs about Russia’s past, present, and future in a variety of ways. They discussed these issues in person by meeting in discussion circles at each other’s houses, and they also discussed them in print by publishing essays in various journals. This educated public was still a very small percentage of the population of the Russian Empire, but it was large enough at this point to be self-sustaining.
I’ve just said that Catherine II and Alexander I deserve credit for the emergence of the intelligentsia. But we should also give credit to Nicholas I. Although he was a more conservative ruler, his policies helped to shape the intelligentsia’s development. When we talked about the Decembrists way back at the start of the semester, I noted that they took some of their inspiration from the wave of nationalism that spread across Europe in the early 19th century, spurred on by the Napoleonic Wars. Nicholas I was also very much a nationalist. In fact, he summarized his regime’s core beliefs with the slogan: “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality.” By this he meant that his subjects owed their loyalty first and foremost to the thee pillars that lay at the foundation of their society and defined Imperial Russia as unique among European states: the Orthodox Church, the absolute power of the tsar, and patriotism for the Russian nation. Today, we can easily identify that this last term as problematic, because Russia was a multiethnic empire. But in Nicholas’ era, which was also the era of the first generation of the intelligentsia, everyone agreed that the Russia had a “national essence.” Where they disagreed was on the nature of that essence and how it should influence Russia’s future.
Nicholas also shaped this first generation of the intelligentsia by putting limits on them. His defeat and harsh treatment of the Decembrists made political revolution unviable for the time being. In fact, many members of the intelligentsia worked for the government and hoped to reform it from within, rather than overthrow it. And he also instituted a robust censorship regime. His Third Department controlled all publications and monitored university curriculums, and don’t forget that Nicholas himself vetted everything Pushkin produced after 1826. This censorship regime pushed the conversations among the intelligentsia into the realm of literature and history. But of course, they were always really talking about politics.
Another important piece of the puzzle is the social composition of the intelligentsia. As Saunders notes, the majority of educated Russians were still members of the gentry. But a new group was also entering the scene: children of middle class families of merchants and free peasants, people well off enough to pay for their children’s education, but who lacked titles or access to court circles. This group was known as the raznochintsy, which means “people of various ranks.” It’s an awkward term for an awkward group; they didn’t have a clear place in society. Vissarion Belinskii, whose “Letter to Gogol” you read for today, is a member of this group. Their different background gave them a different perspective on the major questions of the day and helped to keep the debates among the intelligentsia vibrant.
The most important debates among the intelligentsia in this period was the debate between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers. We’re going to use our primary sources to unpack their differing perspectives. As you read, Kireevskii started out as a Westernizer, but became a Slavophile. The essay we’re discussing today comes from his Slavophile period. Belinskii, on the other hand, was a Westernizer, as his letter makes clear. Something to keep in mind as you read: Nicholas I didn’t appreciate the Slavophiles any more than he did the Westernizers. Rather, he saw both groups as a threat, because they both sought major changes in Russian society and governance. Both groups were liberals, though with different aims in mind.
Let’s start with some questions about chapter 6 in Saunders’ Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform.
Leah’s Discussion Questions on Saunders
1. Based on your reading of this chapter, what are the main characteristics of the intelligentsia of the 1830s-1850s? How do they compare to the Decembrists, in terms of similarities and differences? What factors enable the intelligentsia to emerge at this particular moment in Imperial Russian history? Can you identify previous Political Revolutions and Social Revolutions we’ve discussed in this class that contributed to their appearance on the scene at this particular moment?
2. One of the major ways the intelligentsia discuss their ideas is by forming discussion circles. Look though Saunders’ description of these circles on pp. 157-159. What makes these circles so significant? In what ways do they expand the intelligentsia’s horizons? In what says do they limit them?
Think back to Lyudmilla Alexeyeva’s memoir about the birth of the Soviet human rights movement during Khrushchev’s Thaw. Remember, she described the kompaniya of the 1950s and 1960s as being like the 19th century intelligentsia. Based on what you’ve read, is her assessment accurate? If so, how might we expect to see this intelligentsia of the 1840s evolve over time?
3. Saunders notes that for this first generation of the intelligentsia, the way they discussed politics was by discussing literature. How exactly did this work? How effective of a political debate can you have this way? How might such debates have shaped the development of Russian literature? Do we do a version of this today when we debate popular culture?
4. As you read, by the 1840s, the intelligentsia had divided into two camps: Slavophiles and Westernizers. In your analysis, what are the main ideas of each group? What do they have in common and where do they differ? Are they more similar or more different? Did either group (or both groups) pose a genuine political threat to Nicholas’ regime?
Now I’m going to ask you some questions about the primary sources. I gave you the option to read either Kireevskii or Belinskii, though I hope that some of you were able to read both. When you write your blog post, you can just focus on the questions that pertain to what you read.
Leah’s Discussion Questions on the Primary Sources
1. Belinskii’s Letter to Gogol. As you read, Gogol became known as a progressive social critic and a Westernizer through his novels The Inspector General and Dead Souls. Both were satires: The Inspector General made fun of corrupt bureaucracy, and Dead Souls was a takedown of serfdom. These novels made Gogol a darling of the Westernizer intelligentsia. But in 1847, Gogol published a new book disavowing Westernism and saying that everyone got him wrong. Judging from Belinskii’s “Letter,” what exactly is he so angry with Gogol for? What does he see as Gogol’s real crime? How does this help us understand the intelligentsia’s values?
2. The basic message of Gogol’s 1847 book is: You all misunderstood me. Dead Souls doesn’t mean what you think it means. Does Gogol have the right to claim the final word what his work means? Or is Belinskii’s interpretation equally valid? How do we think about these issues today?
3. The heart of Belinskii’s Letter is his declaration of a writer’s duty to society. Make a close reading of thee long paragraph in the middle of p.258. According to Belinskii, what role must a writer play in society? Do you agree with Belinskii? Do writers have a social responsibility to speak truth to power, first and foremost? Why or why not? What are the costs and benefits of placing that duty on their shoulders?
4. Belinskii and Kireevskii take very different views on the value of rational thought. Their views are most clearly expressed in two passages. For Belinskii, read p.254. For Kireevskii, read the top half of p.177. If you read only one author, how would you characterize his views on the issue of rational thought? Do you agree with his perspective? If you read both authors, how do their ideas differ? Who do you agree with more and why? Or do you think they’re both wrong? How do we think today about Kireevskii’s assertion that rationality and enlightenment make us miserable?
5. Belinskii and Kireevskii also differ on the place of religion in society. For Belinskii, read pp.255-256. For Kireevskii, read p.194. How would you characterize each of their views? How do these views prompt the two writers to look to different parts of society to lead Russia into the future? How does this help us understand the differences between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles?
According to Kireevskii in this passage, the nobility may have forgotten the Orthodox way of life, but it has lived on in the peasantry. Orthodoxy pervades and gives meaning and unity to Russian peasant life. Is Belinskii’s perspective directly opposed Kireevskii’s, or can they work together?
6. Kireevskii argues that it’s a mistake to see Russian culture as a less-developed version of European culture. Rather, it’s an entirely different culture, springing from different historical circumstances. One of the key points of his argument is that while Europe’s intellectual inheritance comes from Ancient Rome, Russia’s comes from Ancient Greece. Look over pp.183-184. For Kireevskii, what are the major values that Europe has inherited from Rome, which he condemns? Although Belinskii was a Westernizer, would he entirely disagree with Kireevskii on this point? Do you agree or disagree that these values are harmful?
7. We’ve established that Kireevskii is not a big fan of Western rationality, which he associates with Roman ways of thinking. On pp.191-193, he contrasts this with what he calls Greek, or Eastern, ways of thinking. What values does he highlight as belonging to “Greek thought”? How do they differ from his characterization of “Roman thought”? What values does he attribute to each side? Does he convince you that “Greek thought” is better? Why or why not?
It’s notable in this passage that Kireevskii references a wide variety of European philosophers: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Fiche, Schelling, and Hegel. Is he suggesting that his own education was useless? Does he want Russians to stop studying these philosophers?
8. At various points in this essay, Kireevskii tells a highly suspect version of Russian history. For example, on pp.195-197, he claims that Russia was never subject to conquest, and thus Russians live harmoniously in a way that Europeans can never achieve. This is a fantasy. He knows it, his readers knew it, and we know it today. What do you make of his historical fantasizing as a form of argumentation? Does it undermine his claims? Or is it acceptable within the boundaries of a philosophical text?
9. Kireevskii closes with a long meditation on the differences between European and Russian ways of life, as he sees it. He sums up by declaring that Russia must look to its Orthodox roots to find a new way forward, which will be better than the path Europe is on. But he has a caveat. Read the last two paragraphs on p. 207. Can you explain Kireevskii’s vision in your own words?